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Otter Tail bait business in a frenzy leading up to walleye opener

Urbank bait company in southern Otter Tail County celebrating 75 years of supplying bait for fishing.

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Urbank Bait employees load tanks on a semi-truck bed to carry minnows to Brainerd in time for the opening of the 2021 Minnesota walleye and northern pike fishing season. From left, Tom Lorine, owner Marshall Koep and Matt Hanson. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

URBANK, Minn. — During the Great Depression, a kid began digging and trapping bait and selling it next to Block Lake in Otter Tail County, not far from Urbank, Minn.

That kid, Paul Koep, grew up, and in 1946, founded Urbank Bait, a business that supplies anglers with bait throughout Minnesota as well as in about a dozen states.

Now celebrating 75 years, Urbank Live Bait Inc. is a third-generation business with six employees. If you buy bait in Douglas County or Otter Tail County, chances are that bait came from their business.

This week, everyone has been putting in 60 to 70 hours a week getting ready for the Saturday, May 15, opening of the walleye and northern pike fishing season.

"It's one of the biggest," said Paul's son, Phillip Koep, 67, who bought the business from his dad, along with two brothers, in 1976. He ended up buying out both brothers, and last year, sold the business to his son, Marshall, 39. Marshall started working for his dad when he was 15. When he got a bit older, he tried a different route. Briefly.

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"He worked in the Cities for two months and come home," Phillip teased.

"Four months," Marshall corrected.

The Twin Cities were just too hectic, he said.

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Phillip Koep, former owner of Urbank Bank, handles cages that sit on the lake bottom to trap minnows. He said he has built 500 of the cages. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

On Monday morning, they were loading a semi-truck with minnows to send to a wholesaler in Brainerd. Every day during the busy season, one or two trucks leaves their facility west of Urbank. They ship to Duluth, Orr, Grand Rapids, Deer River, Cohasset and Bemidji. In Douglas and Otter Tail Counties, they deliver personally to the gas stations that have started selling bait over the years.

"Thirty-forty years ago, every little gas station didn't sell bait," Phillip said. "Every gas station that has a convenience store, a lot of them sell bait. That's changed a lot. A lot more stops."

They also send bait to Wisconsin and South Dakota. A distributor sends their bait still further throughout the U.S.

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They sell crappie bait, fatheads, suckers, decoys, shiners, leeches, night crawlers, wax worms, and the oxygen bags used to hold them all. They've seen a shortage of oxygen bags, because the supply of the petroleum used to make them was interrupted by last winter's hard freezes in Texas that disrupted the oil industry.

Night crawlers they order from Ontario, Canada, but most of the other bait comes from a 100-mile radius around their business.

"We rent minnow ponds in the area. If we couldn't rent those ponds, we'd have no minnows to sell, so the people we rent from, we really appreciate," Marshall said.

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Urbank Bait owner Marshall Koep, right, and his father, former owner Phillip Koep, hold the picture of Marshall's grandparents, Paul and Millie Koep. Paul Koep started Urbank Bank in 1946. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

The ponds have become increasingly important as lakes get infested with invasive species, causing Minnesota to place more restrictions on how bait companies operate in infested lakes.

Urbank Bait no longer traps minnows in Otter Tail Lake, for instance, because the state restricts how they use their traps to prevent the spread of zebra mussels. They could seine (use a net) for minnows, but seining is a much more labor-intensive process that the business replaced years ago in favor of more economical traps.

The business runs a minnow hatchery for about a month during the year.

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As for Marshall's plans for the business?

"Same thing we've been doing," he said. "Helping families get their kids on the water. Keeping them off their phones."

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Over the years, Urbank Bait and the Koep family have drawn the eye of statewide news media. The bottom article is how Phillip Koep rescued duck hunters stranded on an island. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994, and was driven by curiosity to work her way around the United States.
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